Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Scripture Readings: Num. 21:4b-9; Jn. 3:3-17

One of the better sensitivities that our postmodern age has developed is a concern for justice, for individual dignity, and the protection of personal rights.  We may have great difficulty in negotiating the boundaries when rights come into conflict with other rights or the good of society as a whole.  But it is an emphasis which is a valuable complement to the elements contributing to our humanity.

This attention to human dignity and rights has led to the reinterpretation of history.  We look at the past in a new light.  We question the use of dominating power to submerge the freedom of persons.  During the Third Reich, many Germans closed their eyes to what was happening to Jews and minorities in their country.  Now, they are seeking ways to amend those wrongs and compensate for them.  In our own Congress, there are discussions about rectifying the wrongs done to black slaves brought into our country and used as free labor to oil our economy.  The very land we are standing on belonged to the Winnebago tribes, native Americans who were pushed across the river by our government.  The good of the Church seemed to allow the silencing of those who accused priests of sexual abuse.  The efforts to compensate victims is having devastating effects. The sins of the past cast long shadows. 

These are but a few examples of people who did not see what was there to see.  Because to see is to be involved, to enter into a realm of responsibility.  If I don’t see, I am not expected to do anything.  It can seem unjust that I am being held accountable for what others are doing or have done.  Why should the past influence what is happening now?  I am free to disengage myself from these troubling connections with others.  I can say to the crowd of my ancestors and contemporaries: I know not the man.  I disavow these responsibilities and connections.  I deny that I may be among the communion of sinners and have any hope of being in the communion of saints.  Communions which bind me at a deeper level than my needs and preferences lead me into uncharted and uncomfortable territory.  I know not the man.

The Cross is plunged into communion and into the willingness to see reality as marred by the inhumaneness and cruelty that are stored in the human heart.  It is both a past event and continuing revelation of the confrontation of God’s justice and love with the injustice and malice that seem so necessary to keep things going.  The Cross of Jesus is a provocation to our imaginations of security and order.  When the order and peace of God entered the world, the world’s powers sought to debase, humiliate, and annihilate the bearer of this order and peace.  When we see as the world sees, the cross remains an incomprehensible scandal.  The seeing of faith is recreated in the confrontation of God’s love as manifested in the cross.  It sees the cross and it sees the love.  It remains a scandal and contradiction whenever and wherever it reappears in our world.  God made him sin, that in his communion with us he could overcome the despairing resignation and separation that binds and blinds us. At our very limits, we are drawn into the transforming power of suffering love. 

What do we see when we see the cross?  Do we see abject horror?  Do we see the victim of a vengeful God?  Or do we see something revealed about ourselves?  Do we see how much God loves us so that our hearts may be stirred to a new love and life?  Do we see humanity, a communion of life and love which refuses to be dominated by hostility, violence, and fear?  Our fear of being loved this way and of accepting the responsibility of loving which may lead to suffering can keep us from the seeing which is believing.  God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.


Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross


Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

[Scripture Readings: Num 21:4-9; Jn 3:13-17]

In November of 2006 the president of the College of William and Mary ordered the Cross to be removed from the school chapel. He had received twenty complaints that the Cross was offensive. Thousands signed a petition protesting the decision. About them the president said, “They'll get over it.” They didn't “get over it;” they couldn't think of anything more important than it. Under continued pressure, threats of lower donations, the college president allowed the Cross to be placed on the altar on Sundays only. He couldn't think of anything more important than the money.

An order-of-importance challenges all who are confronted by the Cross. Those who accept the challenge tend to do so with commitment. Why?

The Cross represents the ultimate order-of-importance. With the image of a man whose hands and feet are nailed down, we see the ultimate expression of powerlessness. We see the human experience of passive endurance of what is done to us; of things that happen to us. But more than that, we see a man who has the power to be affected in a certain way; to experience certain emotions rather than others. It is love for the Father that affects Him most. This love and fidelity are most important. The challenge of the Cross is that many things beyond our control will happen to us, but how they affect us will be determined by what matters most to us and how deeply we respond to it. For Jesus Christ it was love for the Father. He responded with a self-sacrificial love we call agape. We, brothers, admired that. Each of us came here knowing that he wanted to live with that kind of devotion. To do that he needed a way of life and a community; he needed friends.

Each man came here seeking a community for whom life meant for them what it meant for him. A monastery is a community defined by the purpose from which it began and for which it continues: that purpose is the continual growth in our capacity to prefer nothing whatever to Christ.

Today, a shift occurs in the monastic year. The fast begins and although it seems mostly symbolic, the symbol is important. It calls each monk to review his order-of-importance. Through a small act of communal self-denial, he is reminded that he has professed a life of self-denial, or, more accurately, a life of preference. Many things in life will affect him, but nothing will affect him more deeply than the Father. Each monk responded to the Cross by making a commitment in and to the community because it is only with friends that he can keep it.

The monastery is a “School of Love” precisely because it is in friendships that we learn self-sacrificial love. Friendships are constituted by the good they are meant to achieve. Friendships centered on God are the relationships by which we become good. It is in friendships that we can be secure enough to be vulnerable and that we learn to endure what happens to us and remain faithful. Agape is a community; people joined to one another because of how God is joined to them. The lesson-plan that will effect this kind of love is the Steps of Humility.

The Cross reminds us that many things beyond our control will happen to us, and how they affect us will be determined by what matters most to us and how deeply we respond to it. The triumph of the Cross is that God's will shall be done in us no matter what the cost. After all, the Cross reminds us that we were saved by what shouldn't happen.

Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

[Scripture Readings: Num. 21: 4-9; Phil. 2: 6-11; Jn. 3: 13-17 ]

Perhaps without paying much attention to the fact, we live in a world that surrounds us with signs and symbols. Not only signs that give practical directions for our immediate situation like traffic signs, but symbols that give direction and meaning to our lives. Flags are more than pieces of colored cloth. They insert us into our national history and give us a sense of our identity. The habits we are wearing insert us into the Cistercian tradition and tell us and our visitors that we are monks. Some people might think that when I say that the cross is a symbol I am making light of it and not giving it its proper respect. I submit that the contrary is the case.

For the Romans the cross was a sign of suffering and shame. It was a warning of punishment for those who would challenge Roman authority and power. However, given the frequency with which the Romans employed crucifixion it seems not to have been a very effective sign. Like many conventional signs it could pass out of awareness when it passed out of view.

For Christians the cross is not a sign in the weak sense of saying something only about our immediate here and now situation. It is a sign that points beyond the here and now to a richer reality. First and foremost the cross is the symbol of God’s love for us. Jesus Christ accepted the shame and suffering of crucifixion so that we might have the glory of eternal life. Far from being a sign of death, because of Christ’s self-emptying love the cross points the way to the fullness of life.

However, symbols allow for a multiplicity of interpretations. They do not automatically say the same thing to different people. Many people today like the Romans see the cross as a sign of shame and failure. They think Christian devotion to the cross is foolish at best and in some cases morbid. The love Jesus had for us transformed the sign of suffering and death into a symbol of healing and life. Empowered by the love of Christ poured into our hearts we can in imitation of Christ transform what for many people is a senseless sign devoid of meaning into a symbol of hope and life.

Our way is the way of the disciples. Their acceptance of the cross came only after misunderstanding and rejection. Empowered by faith in Christ’s resurrection and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit they were able to accept what they had previously feared. We are heirs of the faith of the first disciples and we share in the same Holy Spirit. How each of us will share in the cross of Christ will be revealed in God’s personal love for each one of us and in the response in love to which we are called and empowered to make. More than arguments it is the lives of Christians that will transform what for many of our contemporaries is an empty sign into a rich symbol of hope and life.

Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

[Scripture Readings: Num 21:4-9; Phil 2:6-11; Jn 3:13-17 ]

Homiletic courses always taught us that effective preaching comes — in part—from knowing about the people to whom you are preaching. Since I have been an observer here for only six weeks, I make no pretentions to grasp the depths of your lives as monks. I preach today as a secular diocesan priest who has caught a little glimpse of the grace of your life which you have shared with me. So, while not wanting to exclude our guests, I speak directly to you.

The Exaltation of the Cross—why do we celebrate this Feast today? Why do we lift up the Cross in honor and praise? The Cross, St. Paul tells us, is “A stumbling block, a contradiction to some; a folly to others.” Yes, a contradiction—an instrument of death and torture becomes the ultimate expression of selfless love; yes, a folly—how our God can love us so completely beyond measure, beyond what we could ever hope to imagine or deserve—it is a Divine madness!

The Cross remains the superlative icon of our faith—an icon being an image, sign or symbol which draws us more deeply into the mystery it represents. An icon of our God who opens Himself—who empties Himself—with a tenacious and holy desire to embrace us and be one with us in this life and the next.

For at the intersection of the Cross—the heart of Christ—lie two great mysteries of our faith: the Paschal Mystery and the Mystical Body of Christ.

One of the questions in my heart as I came to New Melleray was, “What is the role of a monk in the life of the wider church?”…”How do they proclaim the kingdom of God?”… beyond the virtuous and fundamental goals of growing into deeper communion with our Triune God and seeking eternal salvation in His Kingdom?

One facet of the monk’s life—I have seen and I believe—is to be a living, breathing Icon of the Cross of Christ. Not just in some pious, theological or spiritual abstraction—but, in a real, though mysterious way—through the Mystical Body of Christ—to help bear the sufferings of others in the world. Sharing the “yoke” of Christ’s sufferings, His Paschal Mystery… not taking them away, but carrying them with us, receiving them, being there with us… showing us the way—with a gentle, steadfast and humble of heart.

And through the privations, sufferings and disciplines; through every small act of compassion, which you have chosen to bear in love—you help support and transform the hearts of people everywhere—in the self-giving Love of Christ.

For this mission, Christ has called each of you. For this reason, the world needs you, the Church needs you, I need you… to be a living Icon of the Cross of Christ.

While I am no great expert on the monastic life—what I have come to understand and realize, is this—that, as a diocesan priest in ministry, how truly important and necessary your lives are to the apostolic mission of Christ and to His Mystical, Sublime and often Hurting and Broken Body.

When “Mary” a single grandmother, one of the working poor, adopts her two young teenage granddaughters, because their mother—her daughter—has abandoned them in favor of her addiction to methamphetamine. When—as a faithful parishioner—she comes to the parish desperate because she can’t pay her bills, because she may lose her job and custody of her granddaughters—you were there. You were supporting her, her family, her community of faith and me—as a living Icon of the Cross of Christ. His great consolation, assuring us that this suffering will pass, to trust in something more—the transforming power of His love.

When “Joe“… a 55 year old man comes to me who is overwhelmed with the life he has made for himself—a loveless and bitter marriage, financial debt, a demoralizing job, the inability to feel and share any emotion but despair—when this man has bought a gun and is ready to take his life—you were there. You were supporting him, his family, the mental health professionals and me—as a living Icon of the Cross of Christ—His absolute love reaching out with the promise of hope, and an invitation to begin again—to be made anew.

When I stand next to the bedside of Ethan—a 14 year old boy who has been battling brain cancer since the age of 5—as he has unstoppable convulsions—his mother laying across his body, trying to comfort her only son—crying out to God to please let the pain and suffering end… then in a matter of hours as Ethan breathes his last—that same mother, with his father and sister by him, weeping inconsolably at his loss—this eternal final moment—you were there. You were supporting Ethan, his family and me as a living Icon of the Cross of Christ—His absolute love holding us in His compassionate embrace, entrusting us into the receiving arms of Mary, His mother.

The legacy of your calling to be an Icon of the Cross can be seen just outside these walls. All your brothers who have gone before you—190 simple iron crosses—marking their gift to the world—and to the Kingdom of God. I pray that your lives can be such a gift. We need you. The gaze of our hearts turns toward you.

In a sermon describing this aspect and nature of the cross, St. Peter Chrysologus puts these words on the lips of Christ—he says:

Listen to the Lord’s appeal:
In me, I want you to see your own body,
your members, your heart, your bones, your blood.

You may fear what is divine, but why not love what is human?
You may run away from me as the Lord,
but why not run to me as your father?

Perhaps you are filled with shame for causing my bitter passion.

Do not be afraid. This cross inflicts a mortal injury, not on me, but on death.

These nails no longer pain me, but only deepen your love for me.
I do not cry out because of these wounds,
but through them I draw you into my heart.

My body was stretched on the cross as a symbol,
not of how much I suffered,
but of my all-embracing love.

I count it no less to shed my blood:
it is the price I have paid for your ransom.

Come, then, return to me and learn to know me as your father,
who repays good for evil, love for injury,
and boundless charity for piercing wounds.

My brothers in Christ, I thank you for the gift of your lives freely given to Christ and His Bride the Church… I exhort you… I challenge you… never forget the reason Christ has called you here—to be a living, breathing Icon of the Cross of Jesus Christ for the world… for the Church… and for me… as we seek to gaze upon you and to be drawn into the very heart of love.

This is the Cross we all glory in today.

Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

[Scripture Readings: Num 21:4b-9; Phil 2:6-11; John 3:13-17]

In the past weeks, Madonna the singer once again made news – this time, in her European concert tours as she reenacted the crucifixion scene. Her concerts were well attended, especially by the young people in search of something to put and keep them on high. Couple of decades ago, she sported earrings of the inverted cross. This time she reenacted the crucifixion on stage to the wild applause of the crowd, and the silent protest or indifference of the many who heard about it. In the Netherlands, an elderly priest was arrested for phoning a bomb threat at her concert—but the show went on.

Madonna’s cross and crucifixion scenes are for the rock shows that leave her fans on high, excited or amused. But the crosses in actual life mean sufferings which we would not normally want to have or sustain. The wife and the children of an American soldier slain in Iraq or Afghanistan may have received the condolences of his officers and the pension of her husband, but the cross of his loss keeps haunting his family day in and day out. The crossfire casualties in the missile exchanges between Israel and the Hezbollah guerillas in Lebanon have kept many innocent families homeless and meant the loss of their loved ones. The war has created deep wounds and hardened anger that make the reconciliation process more impossible. A member in a family of illegal immigrants may start losing faith in God in the face of unanswered prayers for economic stability. A hardworking family man may start taunting God at the news of his termination from work due to his failing health. How would his family now survive? he asks. These persons and families have their crosses to carry or to behold, just as we have our own crosses in various ways.

No one lives life on earth without having to encounter a cross in one’s life. Not any of them is meaningful, for a cross is a burden and a punishment; it is a source of shame, not a thing to be proud of or to be displayed. But we have not been condemned to such meaninglessness. This is the essence of our celebration of the feast today. We exalt the holy cross of Jesus and we want to affiliate our crosses with him. God did not have to bother with us, and yet out of love for us, he meant to get involved with our lives. By sending his Son in our midst, he takes up our crosses and makes them his own. This was not for a show, but it was for real—even to the point of giving up his life in shame, deprived of any human dignity. His sufferings led to his death, but with the power of God out of his love for us, death was overcome by a new life as he rose from the dead. His sufferings are now seen as meaningful, after all, especially when seen and applied in the sense of our own sufferings.

Let’s visit for a while the crucifixion scene, as narrated in the gospels. Many jeered at the crucified Jesus. There were the self-righteous and arrogant leaders. There were the indifferent and curious kibitzers. There was the angry convict hanging on the cross too. But where were the disciples who professed loyalty to him? No one, except the beloved disciple. There was his mother Mary, the beloved disciple and other women, standing at the foot of the cross. Another thief who was sympathetic to Jesus was there, by judgment on his crime, There was Jesus—the Son of God, the miracle worker, the innocent and good master, now hanging on the cross, bleeding and hurting and yet silent, contemplating on how to accomplish his mission in loving obedience to his Father.

We can see how each one revolves around the Crucified King, the Suffering God. His coming in the midst of God’s people created a variety of responses. Essentially, he was a sign of contradiction, now the point of conflict—both within and without each person’s life. If he were God, he should not have been there suffering! If he were God, we should not be suffering too! Why do we have to suffer at all? If God is love and joy, why is there hatred and excessive pains all over us? We may voice out all our pains, but the Son of God is there, on the cross, suffering more than any of us, quiet and humbly taking all pains for love of the Father and for us. Those who have followed him take up a similar response—not cursing, not leaving him, but contemplating everything, in pains but in the wisdom of God.

Mary the mother had the most deserved right to protest and scream and curse at all those who inflicted punishment on her son, but she did not. She kept a contemplative spirit, trying to understand everything in the light of God’s mission for her. She was able to grasp its sense only because of her Son. She allowed things to happen not in fatalistic breath, but for love of God and for all her sons, including us. The beloved disciple has been close to Jesus all along, sitting by his feet, reclining at his breast at the Last Supper. Now he was in pains, but he believed that there was more to man’s punishment of his Lord, that there was more beyond his death. The good thief felt guilty, and looking at Jesus who took the sufferings in patient endurance and calm that was borne only by a man of God, he called on Jesus to be remembered in paradise. He saw himself as a sinner, but with Jesus, he sensed that he could still be saved. Too bad, the bad thief was hurting—and hurting a lot more because he resisted. He never saw beyond everything bad that was happening to him and around him. Too bad, the leaders usurped powers for themselves and robbed God of honors. Their sufferings lie in inflicting sufferings to others. Their act deserves greater pains and sufferings called divine judgment sooner or later. Too bad, the other disciples felt helpless but were afraid. They could not afford to see a suffering messiah on whom their hopes were pinned. They had to abandon him. Yet they missed something essential in their faith-formation. However, so long as they kept their faith, even in their falls or desertion of Jesus, there was still a chance to find meaning to the cross of Jesus and their own crosses later.

Inevitably, we are there too—at the crucifixion site. We have our own crosses. They are part of us and our life. We may find them too heavy and we desire to get rid of them. But depending on how we deal with the cross of Jesus, our crosses will assume corresponding lightness or heaviness. If we fail to realize that even the exalted Son of God has humbled himself to take up the cross for us, our crosses can crush us to death. But if we believe that through the cross, God shows his tremendous love for us, we may be crushed but we will survive and even emerge victorious from our sufferings. We die to our old selfishness. Our death leads to new and glorious life in Christ. Sufferings may come and go, and keep coming, but we affirm in deep faith, “We adore you, O Christ and we bless you. By your cross, you have redeemed me and the whole world.